Strategic clarity

Strategic clarity

The “insider attacks” on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces in Afghanistan are taking a toll and the top American commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen summed up Sunday night he is “mad as hell” and is “going to get after this.” If the Taliban’s attempt was to demoralise the western alliance and prompt them to scramble for the “exit”, it isn’t happening.

This is the unambiguous message to come out from the US-Afghan bilateral commission meet at foreign minister level in Washington on Wednesday. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton struck a high note asserting that Nato’s “transition” through 2013 is on track. Clinton sounded cautiously optimistic about the capabilities of Afghan armed forces to assume security responsibilities. Interestingly, she had nothing to say about peace talks with the Taliban. Clinton also sidestepped the Afghan-Pakistan tensions as if there is nothing unusual.

 The highlight was the announcement regarding the commencement of negotiations for the conclusion of a bilateral security agreement on long-term American military presence. The US has nominated James Warlick, who is currently serving as deputy to special representative Marc Grossman to lead the American team. Warlick, a career diplomat, also is a key interlocutor for the reconciliation of the Taliban and his appointment underscores that the US-Afghan security pact, despite its overt emphasis on military matters, is quintessentially a political framework with a pan-Afghan outlook that could also accommodate the Taliban if they are willing.

 The US is retaining the flexibility to deal with Taliban now or later after the Nato’s withdrawal in 2014. Indeed, a milestone has been reached in regional security. The security environment around India won’t be the same again. The US is consolidating its military presence, formalising it within the framework of a bilateral treaty with Afghanistan, and is determined to remain committed militarily on a long-term footing in the region even as it disengages from day-to-day combat operations. If any regional powers harbored disquiet about long-term military presence in Afghanistan, Washington hasn’t heard about it. The US estimates that the majority opinion among Afghan people (and the regional opinion) favours long-term American military commitment to that country’s security and stability.

India would welcome the strategic clarity that is surfacing with regard to the stabilisation of Afghanistan. Significantly, the meeting of the US-Afghan bilateral commission in Washington took place within a week of the first meeting of the US-Indian-Afghan “trilateral” – which was also an American initiative – in New York. Conceivably, there were impulses common to the two forums.   

Paramount importance

The Afghan foreign minister Zalmay Rasul says that the proposed US-Afghan security pact is of “paramount importance” to his country. This is how Rasul characterises  Afghanistan’s strategic ties with the US: “We (Afghanistan) approach this partnership from the fundamental premises that serve our national interest, and is potentially linchpin of security and stability in the region.” It stresses that Afghanistan in its self-interests is eagerly seeking long-term American military presence to provide the underpinning of security. Clearly, there is a signal here also for countries neighbouring Afghanistan. Rasul seemed to imply, ‘Don’t be under the notion that the US is leaving us to the wolves.’

 What lies ahead? Clearly, Clinton’s remarks suggest that no matter the apocalyptic predictions about post-2014 scenario, Washington is pressing ahead with the negotiation of a security pact during the tenure of the Karzai government. There is no more any unseemly hurry to frontload the current phase with talks with the Taliban. Of course, the US won’t turn its back to peace talks, either. In sum, the ball lies in the Pakistani court to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan has so far prevaricated, but the strategic clarity now available in US posturing also offers some food for thought for the Pakistani military leadership.

 The choice for the Pakistani military will be to press ahead with a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but the big question will be whether it is in Pakistan’s long-term interests to either confront the US or even to facilitate a Taliban regime taking shape to the north of the Durand Line. Kunar is already bad enough. Pakistan has a choice to make. The heart of the matter is that the Arab Spring also beckons and it brooks no barriers in the “Greater Middle East”.

 Meanwhile, Nato’s “transition” plan is entering a critical phase as security responsibility for some sensitive regions will be handed over to the Afghan forces and the latter will undergo baptism under Taliban fire. Therefore, Karzai has stepped forward with a timely plan for political transition in Kabul as well. His categorical pledge on Thursday to step down and ensure an orderly transition in accordance with the Afghan constitution will calm the political opposition, which is now assured of a level playing field. This, in turn, will help Karzai steer the road map leading to 2014, especially the proposed Afghan-US security pact with a national consensus backing him.

 On the other hand, Karzai’s pledge amounts to a tantalising offer to the Taliban to enter mainstream politics. The issue that looms ahead is whether Taliban would be interested in a game that involves ground rules and/or whether Pakistan would take pains to impress upon them that power-sharing rather than unilateral attempts to capture power through military means will be the realistic approach to adopt in the emergent circumstances.

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